ARTS & CULTURE
03/18/2016 10:42 am ET | Updated Jan 18, 2017

What J.K. Rowling's New Story Can Teach Us About Cultural Appropriation

Rowling messed up big time. What next?

After leaving Harry Potter fans to subsist on rereads and tiny snippets about Professor McGonagall from Pottermore for what felt like decades, J.K. Rowling has been back with a vengeance.

A new play, "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child," will give fans a look into the life of Harry the family man, chronicling his life as a busy Auror, husband, and father dealing with a troubled son. The upcoming Potter world film, "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," starring Eddie Redmayne, will bring the wizarding world to the big screen for the first time since "Deathly Hallows." And to prepare for the latter project, Rowling recently published the four-part story "History of Magic in North America," which glosses over the Salem witch trials, the Magical Congress of the United States of America, the wizarding school of Ilvermorny, and skinwalkers. 

Oh, yes, that last one: One of four parts of Rowling's magical history addressed magic in the Native American "community," as she put it, including the Navajo tradition of skinwalkers, which Rowling wrote as legends surrounding Native Animagi, born of rumors spread by jealous medicine men.

Rowling's entire section on Native American magic, which appeared on Pottermore last week, ignored the plethora of different, unique tribal nations across the continent in favor of vague generalizations and stereotypes about Native magic, which quickly drew backlash from Native leaders and activists.

"We as Indigenous peoples are constantly situated as fantasy creatures,” wrote Cherokee scholar Adrienne Keene on her blog, Native Appropriations. “But we’re not magical creatures, we’re contemporary peoples who are still here, and still practice our spiritual traditions, traditions that are not akin to a completely imaginary wizarding world.”

She wasn’t alone; Keene's response to Rowling’s “History of Magic in North America” circulated widely, along with social media posts, blogs, and articles by many Native American readers disturbed by the shallow, generalized inclusion of Native tradition and stereotypes in the story. First Nations artist and author Aaron Paquette put it bluntly in an article for the Ottawa Citizen: "This is colonialism. Simply put, it’s cultural theft and these are not her stories to tell." 

It’s pretty clear, to anyone paying attention, that Rowling messed up.

Reading and listening to Native American and First Nations activists, authors, and readers reacting to the treatment of their cultural heritage, certain important points keep emerging: “History of Magic in North America” relied on worn-out stereotypes that erase tribal distinctions, ignore the true cultures and traditions of different nations, and reinforce conceptions of Native American people as mystical beings rather than real people who continue to exist today. The story was shallow and poorly researched, not a detailed and thoughtful exploration of the histories of the peoples who have lived on this continent for centuries.

Scholar Amy H. Sturgis, who is of Cherokee descent, told me, “Some of her descriptions -- the claim that the Native American wizarding community was ‘particularly gifted in animal and plant magic’ for instance -- refer less to Native American cultural traditions than to stereotypes of the mystical Noble Savage that have been used for centuries by non-Natives to make Native Americans seem exotic and Other.”

Regarding the skinwalker narrative, which has garnered particular outrage, she noted that it was particularly troubling to see Rowling make use of a Navajo tradition "as legend, a smokescreen for 'real' magical history, and to divorce this tradition from its specific origins and apply it to all of Native America as a whole."

One thing's certain: Rowling didn't have much idea what she was writing about, and it showed. "I don't think she has the knowledge necessary to do justice to marginalized peoples," Debbie Reese, a Nambe Pueblo Indian scholar, told me. (Reese writes the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature, which carefully reviews young people's literature with representations of American Indians to tease out the often glaring misrepresentations, appropriations, and damaging stereotypes within.) 

Last week, I wrote about how the original Harry Potter series was soaked in British culture, specifically the boarding school narrative traditional to British children’s literature. Taking the wizarding world out of its cozy Hogwarts nook seemed, to me, unwise; it removed the school story structure that made the series so familiar and homey, as well as pushed Rowling herself out of her comfort zone. Suddenly, she’s writing in more than passing about North American magical culture, and what, really, does Rowling know about North American culture?

Given that Rowling's lived experience and cultural heritage is white and British, and that the original series succeeded within the confines of a British boarding school setting, perhaps it makes more sense for her to stick with it. One reader, Milana, had a different response to my article:

Though some people of color appeared at Hogwarts over the years, in non-starring roles, the setting of the fantasy series that has dominated the YA landscape to an astonishing degree is deeply Anglo, predominantly white, and culturally homogenous. As Milana and plenty of other readers saw it, why shouldn’t fans from other races, cultures, and continents see how the parallel magical world would look in their own societies? 

Yet, at the same time, the aforementioned outcry over the inept inclusion of Native peoples' traditions and lore in “History of Magic in North America” showed clearly that many observers saw little to appreciate in Rowling’s incorporation of their cultures into the Harry Potter universe.

But now that we’re having this conversation -- what next?

Was there a way for Rowling to write a history of magic in North America without writing this “History of Magic in North America,” without either appropriating the culture of, or totally erasing, the Indigenous peoples who make up most of the history of the continent? What should future writers keep in mind when writing from outside Native communities? And, more generally, how can the literary world expand the representation of Native American and First Nations characters in fantasy YA without proliferating such catastrophes?

Milana, the tweeter who originally got us thinking about whether Harry Potter itself should be globalized for the sake of diversity, and who preferred we not include her last name, told me over email that "History of Magic in North America" "definitely read as appropriation, unfortunately,” but she believes "with assistance, [Rowling] could've preserved and honored Native American folklore rather than make them out to be a mythical culture that no longer exists.”

When it comes to those elements of a deep and spiritual tradition you either form relationships and get permission, or you leave it alone. Aaron Paquette

Sturgis had a similar take. “Discussing North America requires discussing Native America,” she told me, pointing out that the story was an obvious step in setting the stage for the upcoming "Harry Potter" film “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” which is set in North America.

“It would have been unthinkable for Rowling to ignore the First Nations on this continent while building her magical history," she added. "That said, her treatment did not display quite the same careful research, respectful touch, and attention to detail shown in her past handling of other world culture. In that sense, I was disappointed.”

In past research, Sturgis has written extensively about the intersection of Native American issues and fantasy, including Harry Potter specifically, and she’s argued in the past that non-Native authors shouldn’t be excluded from writing about the culture. In a 2009 interview, she told digital magazine Journey to the Sea, “There is a great debate about who has the right to draw on Native American traditional material, about who is authentic and what is credible. These questions for the most part disturb me.” Though slapdash uses of Native American tradition and history, like Rowling’s skinwalker tale, proliferate, she explained, “I do not believe the solution is to prevent non-Native authors from accessing and being inspired by this material.” 

Specifically, Rowling would have done well to reach out to scholars and leaders from the Native cultures she planned to draw from in her fiction, argued Paquette. "Taking an entire continent's worth of distinct nations and lumping them together was both sadly familiar to Indigenous people but somewhat surprising since it came from an author who seemed to care about justice and human rights," he told me. "Reaching out to the communities you intend to fictionalize would appear to be one of the first things an author with her means might do."

He emphasized that the outcry wasn't "because Rowling isn't 'Native' and she dares write about 'Native' stories [...] When it comes to those elements of a deep and spiritual tradition you either form relationships and get permission, or you leave it alone." He even specified that this extended to distinctions between Native nations. "If I decided to totally claim another Indigenous culture's stories and rewrite them, it wouldn't matter that I was also Indigenous," he said.

Not everyone can get behind that philosophy, however.

Reese told me frankly that she doesn’t believe there’s a need for outsiders to try to write about Native peoples, nor to include them as characters in a white-dominated franchise. “What she has created has nothing to do with us,” said Reese, referring to the wizarding world of Harry Potter. “Now, it may strike her (and others) as a mark of diversity and inclusion to have Native ‘wizards’ but doing that is simply putting us on her stage as decoration for a story that has nothing to do with us.”  

What’s more, Reese said, she’s seen a great deal of agreement among Native leadership. “I believe that, if she had talked with Native scholars who work in literature and media, and Native leaders, she would have heard a very strong ‘don't do that,’” she explained, citing numerous instances of both prominent leaders and individuals on Twitter making clear they preferred Rowling not even attempt to write about their culture. “Stories like the ones she did sell,” Reese pointed out, “and things that sell get done over and over again. They overwhelm and overshadow Native writers who submit manuscripts to publishers that are rejected because they don't fit the expectations of the market.”

Rowling is simply the most prominent and influential example of an all-too-common story -- a fiction by a non-Native writer that negligently mishandles cultural traditions and lore, while receiving more institutional support and marketing reach than Native writers are likely to ever get.

It’s not just that this individual story is deeply troubling, but that Rowling’s immense market power lifts the flawed, stereotypical portrayal of Native peoples into the forefront, reaffirming a long history of white-narrated, ignorant portrayals and drowning out the voices of Native authors working from a place of deep cultural knowledge and personal investment.

Fictions work if the reality of the peoples whose lives are being fictionalized is well known by readers who have a firm grasp on the subject matter from the start. With Native peoples, that firm grasp of who we are is not there. Debbie Reese

As is often the case, however, Rowling’s enormous influence could easily work to the good. 

Milana saw a path for Rowling to use her almost supernatural clout to help the Potterverse expand in a thoughtful, sensitive manner: “[The] only other way I could see it is if she gave other writers of color her blessing to develop the [international] schools along a central concept,” she suggested. That approach certainly seems like a long shot, but it wouldn’t be the first time a big-name author allowed her name brand as a seal of approval on series additions written by other authors.

"I think you'd have many Indigenous authors jumping at the chance," said Paquette. Fans might balk at a non-Rowling Harry Potter, but the advantage of seeing another magical school built out with the same degree of bred-in-the-bone cultural knowledge that she brought to Hogwarts could trump that.

Putting aside Harry Potter cowriters, farfetched as it sounds, there are already many Native writers, writers of color, and writers from various marginalized communities who are drawing from their own experiences and cultural lore to create original fantasy worlds. Paquette, who is Cree and Metis, is the author of an award-winning YA fantasy novel, Lightfinder, which draws from Cree traditions. But Native authors often struggle in a white-dominated literary industry. “I don't think there's a need for coverage from a white perspective, but all could use some endorsement by the likes of Rowling,” said Milana. Using her unparalleled reputation to amplify the stories of Native fantasy authors, instead of drowning them out with another half-baked, stereotype-ridden Native fantasy from her perspective, would be a positive step.

Sturgis told me she still hopes that future fictional explorations of the Harry Potter wizarding world in North America will improve on what we’ve seen so far. “Painting all of Native America as one monolithic whole with the same traditions and beliefs is very problematic. Rowling did not take similar shortcuts with her handling of various other (often but not exclusively European) cultures and heritages,” she pointed out. “The question is,” she said, “whether, in fleshing out information Rowling had already teased about magical North Americas, she will hold herself to the same standard of careful research and respectful execution that she’s previously observed in her world building.”

A clear solution may not exist as to how to totally avoid such debacles in the future; as Paquette put it, "you'll never please all the people all the time." Many Native scholars, authors, and activists would prefer that non-Indigenous authors not venture to write about Native peoples at all, while others see active, compassionate communication and collaboration as the ideal approach.

Solving the problem starts, though, with listening to what people like Reese and Paquette are saying -- with the literary industry using what power it has to promote Native authors' representations of their own cultures and mythologies, and with white authors learning the importance of relying on a depth of research and relationship-building with the people they're writing about, rather than resorting to crude stereotypes. 

Unfortunately, the stakes aren't low for Native peoples if high-powered figures like Rowling continue as they have been. 

Reese pointed to the research of Stephanie Fryberg, which suggests that pervasive Native stereotypes in fiction and cultural representation can harm Native youths' self-esteem and ambition. In a study titled "Of Warrior Chiefs and Indian Princesses: The Psychological Consequences of American Indian Mascots," Fryberg and her coauthors found that exposure to stereotypical Native American mascots limited Native young people's conceptions of their future selves and lowered their senses of community value.

Perpetuating a specific image of Native peoples broadly throughout society -- one that is lacking in appreciation for the multitude of tribal distinctions, the real and rich history of those nations, and the continuing vital presence of Native peoples in North America today -- crowds out more empowering and varied representations of Native Americans that recognize their individual humanity, their real contemporary lives, and the value of their cultures.

"Fictions work if the reality of the peoples whose lives are being fictionalized is well-known by readers who have a firm grasp on the subject matter from the start," explained Reese. "With Native peoples, that firm grasp of who we are is not there. What most people 'know' is mystical, romantic, tragic, noble ... but not who we are as peoples of today who have a unique status in the U.S."

Now, people around the world might be getting reintroduced to Native American peoples by the force that is Rowling's Harry Potter, and the appropriative and stereotypical treatment of Native communities isn't just a missed opportunity -- it's another massive reinforcement of an actively damaging problem. 

But it's not too late for Rowling to use her powerful Twitter presence and international fame to make a positive difference for Native peoples. Reese suggested that she take the humbling step of openly apologizing and explaining where she went wrong to her readers. “That would help everyone who is impacted by her stories, and, I daresay, it won't hurt her profile, either,” Reese told me. “She can own what she did and use her words to educate and inform readers everywhere.”

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